Detente in the Gulf?

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When the Americans, like the British before them, grow weary of their imperial duties and sail away, Iran will dominate the Persian Gulf. It is ordained. No nation in the region can match Iran’s size, population or power. George Bush’s war that smashed Iraq and the U.S.-led embargo blockade that have brought it to ruin destroyed Iran’s rival. The only question is: What kind of Iran shall it be?

That the nations of the region recognize that the Americans will one day be gone but the Persians are here forever is evident. A U.S.-sponsored economic conference in Qatar was boycotted by our Arab friends while the Islamic conference in Tehran a month later had perfect attendance. The Middle East knows that to stiff the Americans is to get a lecture from Madeleine Albright but to affront the mullahs is to get suicide bombers in your capital city.

Thus, the overture by Iranian President Mohammad Khatami is intriguing. Khatami is clearly anxious to end Iran’s isolation. In this one respect, then, U.S. sanctions have succeeded: By making life hard for Iran, we provided a stimulus for its middle class and young people to repudiate the mullahs in an election where Khatami got 70 percent of the vote. Now that he has extended his hand, we ought to take it. Iran’s regime is obviously no monolith, and this new man is preferable to any we have seen since 1979.

What do Khatami and Iran want from America? In the short term, Tehran wants its billions in frozen assets back, the lifting of sanctions, U.S. equipment to upgrade its oil-drilling facilities, and an end to U.S. interference with new pipelines from the Caspian Sea through Iran. Ultimately, however, Iran wants U.S. power removed from the region so Tehran may begin its tenure as hegemon of the Gulf.

Nor should we view this prospect with horror. Of all the great powers, the United States is the farthest removed from the Gulf and the least vulnerable to an oil embargo. It is not America’s oil we defend there but Europe’s and Japan’s. And it is not our vital interests that are at risk there but only our imperial interests — as pacifier and policeman of the Near East.

Since the Arab and Western nations we protect are cutting their own deals with Baghdad and Tehran, perhaps it is time we gave up a costly imperial policy, the beneficiaries of which seem unappreciative, and began looking out for America first.

The Clinton administration says that before dialogue can begin, Iran must do three things: end its drive for weapons of mass destruction, support the Mideast peace process and end its support of terrorism.

As for the first, even if Iran says it will, it won’t. Why? Because atomic weapons are indispensable if Iran is to become a great regional power. Three of its neighbors — India, Pakistan and Israel — already have the capacity, and Saddam Hussein, who launched an eight-year war against Iran and plays host to an anti-Tehran army, has his own chemical and biological weapons. A nuclear capability is surely seen in Iran as a deterrent to Baghdad, for no nation with nuclear weapons has ever had its homeland subjected to attack.

Once a nation acquires the bomb, it is also accorded a new respect. When North Korea appeared about to test a bomb, U.S. policy overnight shifted from remorseless hostility to cooing accommodation. Iran surely did not miss the lesson.

As for Iran’s sabotage of the peace process, it is unlikely to end. Championing the Palestinians and vilifying Israel wins Iran plaudits across the Muslim world and among the Arab masses. But on the matter of halting terrorism, we may be able to do business.

Khatami obviously wishes to open his society to what America has to offer and to avoid a war with the United States, which would be calamitous for a leader seeking to deliver a better life for the millions who voted him into power.

Thus, America should walk, not run, toward Khatami and take up his offer of exchanges. The national interests of our two nations are not in conflict; only our ideologies are. If Khatami can show that detente produces dividends, while “death to America” rhetoric left Iranians with ashes in their mouths, we may be able to deepen the wedge between the mullahs and the majority, which is surely fed up with the failures of the revolution and the excesses of the theocratic police state it engendered.

Like Lenin’s party, the Ayatollah’s is a party that justified holding total power by asserting the necessity to keep the nation unified, disciplined and resolute in its war with the United States. Through detente, we may take away Iran’s enemy and undermine Iran’s war party. And so, with eyes wide open, let us proceed.

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